Mugsy, the hand-raised ape who recently asserted himself as leader of the Knoxville Zoo’s chimpanzee troupe, has died. He would have been 18 next month.
Zookeepers noticed the usually active ape was lethargic and often resting on his belly earlier this week. On Thursday he was taken to the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. Doctors found part of Mugsy’s intestine had telescoped into an adjacent portion and that he suffered a perforated, damaged bowel.
Doctors operated on Mugsy and removed part of his bowel. While the prognosis was not good, the ape was young, otherwise healthy, very strong and extremely feisty.
“He had everything going for him (to recover),” Lisa New, the zoo’s director of animal collections for mammals and birds. “The vets wanted to give him every fighting change.”
Mugsy returned the zoo in essentially a drug-induced coma so that he could receive the intravenous antibiotics and other medications. At the zoo clinic he was attended round-the-clock for more than 24 hours. But while many of the ape’s other vital signs stayed stable, his kidneys began to fail.
Because of the animal’s progressing renal failure, doctors and zoo personnel made the decision to euthanize Mugsy Friday afternoon.
The intestinal problem, medically called an intussuception, is “a very rare thing, especially for an adult animal that has not been sick,” New said.
Intelligent and personable, Mugsy grew up at the zoo. He arrived as a 1-year-old in 1991 from the Los Angeles Zoo. Four days later, 6-month-old male chimp Lu arrived from the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Fla.
Since their ape mothers couldn’t care for them at other zoos, Mugsy and Lu were reared together by zookeepers in Knoxville. They became inseparable, within their own circle and in the eyes of many zoo visitors. Over the years, zookeepers worked successfully to introduce and integrate the pair into the whole chimp troupe.
Over the last nine months, Mugsy asserted himself as the unlikely leader of the zoo’s Chimp Ridge. Last year, the zoo brought in the male Jimbo from the Cleveland Zoo. A proven leader, Jimbo was expected to be a role model to Lu and Mugsy.
But what the humans expected didn’t happen. Jimbo became the butt of ape aggression, often lead by the female apes. And Mugsy – who as a youngster once cowered in a corner and rocked when adult apes banged on his exhibit glass – stepped up as the leader.
His death leaves a void in the eight-chimp troupe. It is expected that Jimbo, who had already been challenging the young male in recent weeks, will become the alpha ape.
Zookeepers brought Mugsy’s body back to Chimp Ridge Friday so the other chimps could have closure, New said. The females Debbie, Julie and Daisy, who have lived with Mugsy, were quiet. Jimbo stared attentively as Mugsy’s corpse through the exhibit mesh. Lu was visually shaken and vocal.
The ape’s death is also difficult for the keepers who have worked with the personable creature for years. This is the second primate death at the zoo within months; the elderly gorilla BiBi died Christmas Day.
Mugsy was also a favorite with zoo staff from maintenance workers to housekeepers. Workers often took lunch breaks at Chimp Ridge to visit with Mugsy.
“He is just one of the favorites; he just connected with so many regular people,” New said.
Mugsy also enjoyed getting a reaction from visitors. And at more than 160 pounds, he could make quite an impression.
“I think he has given many children nightmares,” New said. “He would hit the (chimp exhibit) glass and they would jump.”
The zoo has set up an address for those who wish to express their sympathy to keepers and Mugsy’s caregivers are Knoxville Zoo; Attn: Thoughts for Mugsy; Knoxville Zoo; P.O. Box 6040; Knoxville, TN 37914.
Amy McRary may be reached at 865-342-6437.